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    Default On-line Bulgarian Grammar

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    Study Bulgarian

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    Basic Rules of Pronunciation

    When we discussed the basic spelling rules in Bulgarian it was mentioned that the Bulgarian orthography is regarded as based on the phonetic and the morphological principles. This means that, unlike in English, in general the words are pronounced the way they are spelled, and are spelled the way they are pronounced. There are two basic types of exceptions to that correspondence between letter and sound. One of them was discussed in the chapter on the basic spelling rules. There we discussed sounds for which there are no letters and how you spell them, as well as letters that are associated with more than one sound and how you pronounce them.

    In this chapter we are going to discuss letters and sounds that are basically meant to have one-to-one correspondence but in certain circumstances fail to do this. There are three, synchronic by nature, phonetic laws in Bulgarian that cause discrepancies between letters and sounds: the reduction of the unstressed vowels, the devoicing of the voiced consonants at the end of the words, and the adjusting of the voicing of consonant clusters.

    The vowel system of Bulgarian consists of six vowels: А, Е, И, О, У, Ъ. As there is no distinction between short and long vowels it can be assumed that they are all short. The accented vowels are engaged in different oppositions: front (Е, И) : non-front (А, Ъ, О, У) vowels, labialized (О, У): non-labialized (А, Ъ) vowels, open (Е, А, О) : closed (И, Ъ, У) vowels. However, when the vowels are not accented the opposition between open and closed vowels is lost, i.e. the unaccented Ъ and A sound the same, and the unaccented У and O sound more alike than the accented. Only the front vowels E and И continue to oppose each other even when they appear in unaccented syllables. Here are some examples (the accented vowel is underlined):

    вадя (to take/to pull out) : въдя (to breed)
    кат (a floor; a layer) : кът (a nook, a corner)
    сам (alone) : съм (am)

    соча (to point to/at) : суча (to suck)
    ток (a heel of a shoe) : тук (here)
    точен (exact) : тучен (succulent)

    белка (a marten) : билка (med. herb)
    лек (light) : лик (an image)
    мене (me) : мине (he passes, 3rd p. sg, pres.t.)

    In the examples above A and Ъ, O and У, E and И are stressed and they are fully opposed to each other. The A sounds like the a in 'father' but a bit shorter, and the Ъ sounds like the e in 'father' and even more closed. O sounds like the o in 'short', and У sounds like oo in 'book'. E sounds like e in 'Edward' and И sounds like i in 'idiot'.

    Now let's see what happens when these pairs of vowels appear in unaccented syllables:

    бабата [бабътъ] (the grandmother)
    гълъбът [гълъбът] (the pigeon)

    In the examples above all four unaccented vowels, i.e. the two unaccented a-sounds in the word 'бабата' and the two unaccented ъ-sounds in the word 'гълъбът' sound exactly the same way - almost as the accented Ъ but a little more open, just like the e in the English words 'mother', 'brother' etc. This pronunciation is correct for all unaccented 'a'-s and 'ъ'-s, with one exception only. If the 'a' or 'ъ' sounds appear in the syllable just before the accented syllable both are pronounced exactly the same way - almost as the accented A but a little more closed, just like the o in the English words 'mother' and 'brother':

    барабан [бърабан] (a drum)
    кавърма [къварма] (Bulg. dish of highly seasoned meat)
    България [балгарийъ] (Bulgaria)

    For the pair O : У there is only one grade of reduction regardless of their position towards the stressed syllable. This means that the unaccented O sounds a little like the У, but that's all. It still is a recognizable O. A stronger reduction towards У is considered non-standard, dialectal. The same is valid for the unaccented У. It sounds a little like the O but just a little. Here are some examples:

    глупак [глупак, not глопак] (a fool)
    долу [долу, not доло] (down)
    комин [комин, not кумин] (a chimney)
    поле [поле, not пуле] (a field)

    There is no reduction of the unstressed E and И. This means that the unaccented E doesn't sound at all like И and vice versa. Here are some examples:

    пиле [пиле, not пили] (a chicken)
    зеле [зеле, not зели] (cabbage)
    билет [билет, not белет] (a ticket)
    директор [директор, not деректор] (a director)

    You probably remember that in the previous chapter it was mentioned that most of the consonants in Bulgarian are engaged in the opposition voiced : voiceless (mute) consonants. These consonants are otherwise identical, only when you pronounce the voiced consonants the vocal cords also participate, i.e. they are vibrating. When you pronounce the voiceless consonants the vocal cords are not vibrating. Most consonants in Bulgarian are paired in voicing. This means that for each voiced consonant there is a voiceless counterpart but not vice versa. In addition to that the nasals M and H, the liquids P and Л, and the glide Й do not participate at all in that opposition. Like the vowels, they are too sonorous for that. Here are the voiceless : voiced pairs of consonants in Bulgarian:

    П : Б
    Т : Д
    К : Г
    Ф : В
    С : З
    Ш : Ж
    Х : /
    Ц : ДЗ
    Ч : ДЖ

    The palatal consonants form the same pairs but they are not listed because the opposition between voiced and voiceless palatal consonants is not relevant to what we are going to discuss as they appear only before the non-front vowels.

    In Bulgarian pronunciation, all voiced consonants at the end of the word are pronounced like their voiceless counterparts. This is called devoicing of the consonants. Here are some examples:

    роби - роб [роп] (slaves - a slave)
    ръкави - ръкав [ръкаф] (sleeves - a sleeve)
    рогове - рог [рок] (horns - a horn)
    градове - град [грат] (towns - a town)
    таралежи - таралеж [таралеш] (hedgehogs - a hedgehog)
    разкази - разказ [раскас] (stories - a story)

    Whenever two or more consonants that participate in the opposition voiced : voiceless occur next to each other within a word or a cluster of words sharing a single accent (phonological word), the final consonant influences the voicing of the whole consonant cluster. This means that if the final consonant is voiced - the whole lot becomes voiced, and vice versa - if the final consonant is voiceless, all will be voiceless. This is called consonant assimilation or adjusting the voicing of consonant clusters. Here are some examples:

    роби - робски [ропски] (slaves - slave, adj.)
    Моравия - моравска [морафска] (Moravia - of /from Moravia)
    рогове - рогче [рокче] (horns - a small horn)
    градове - градче [гратче] (towns - a small town)
    държа - дръжка [дръшка] (to hold - a handle)
    връзвам - връзка [връска] (to tie/bind - a tie/link)
    пред олтара - пред съда [прет_съдъ] (in front of the altar - in front of the court)
    без амбиция - без смисъл [бес_смисъл] (without ambition - without reason)
    сватове - сватба [свадба] (in-laws - a wedding)
    събирам - сбор [збор] (to collect - a sum/a total)
    от Европа - от друг град [од_друк грат] (from Europe - from another city)
    с амбиция - с доброта [з_доброта] (with ambition - with goodness)

    The vowels, and the consonants that do not participate in the opposition voiced : voiceless (i.e. м, н, р, л, й), as well as the consonant В do not influence the voicing of the neighbouring consonants. (There is a simple explanation for the strange behaviour of 'B' - this sound descends from the Indo-European semivowel-U, so no wonder it sometimes behaves just like the Й, that descends from the Indo-European semivowel-I.) Here are some examples:

    * in front of 'в':

    роби - робство [ропство] (slaves - a slavery)
    от вас [от_вас] (from you)
    без вас [без_вас] (without you)
    зад вас [зад_вас] (behind you)

    * in front of 'р', 'л', 'м', 'н', 'й':

    от Рим [от_рим] (from Rome)
    без мене [без_мене] (without me)
    под небето [под_небето] (under the sky)
    изследвам - излизам - изисквам [исследвам - излизам - изисквам](to research - to go out - to demand)

    * in front of vowels:

    пред олтара [пред_олтаръ] (in front of the altar)
    без амбиция [без_амбицийа] (without ambition)
    с амбиция [с_амбицийа] (with ambition)
    от Европа [от_европа] (from Europe)

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    Thank you especialy for Livemocha

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